I recently gave a keynote address to a group of emerging leaders about how we can foster positive mental health and lead with care.

After my talk, a woman approached me with excited curiosity.

“You’ve built the career. You’ve got a young family. You’re out there helping other women navigate their journeys. How did you manage to actually have it all?” she asked.

And there it was – the phrase that’s been debated since Helen Gurley Brown, former editor of Cosmopolitan magazine, released her ground-breaking book Having It All in 1982.

She wrote about having it all in a different time – when society told women they had to choose between kids and career, or marriage and our own identities. Some believed it was one or the other, not both. Sadly, some still believe that.

Helen Gurley Brown espoused a different view: that women could want more for themselves – and they didn’t have to wait for a man to go out and get it or ask his permission.

Thirty-five years after her book, we’re still debating whether or not we can have it all – and if so, can we have it all at the same time?

My answer to both questions is yes, but if you want to have it all, know these four things:

Be clear about what having it all means to you.

Your definition of having it all may be different than the person in the office next to you, your neighbour or your best friend. And that’s perfectly okay.

Having it all must be unique to you – and it can’t be some version Hollywood dreamed up. When we adopt other people’s definition of having it all, we set unrealistic expectations for ourselves, and that leads to unnecessary stress and feelings of inadequacy.

Does having it all mean you’re in an executive role, on a six-figure salary and driving long-term strategy, change or innovation? Does it mean you have a job with flexibility so you can pick up the kids from school a few days a week or get home to care for an aging parent? Or do you have a part-time job you like so you can spend time doing things outside of work that you love?

Your vision of having it all can’t be just about work. It has to be about all of you. Does your ‘having it all’ align to your core purpose? To your values? To the way you want to spend your time and live your life?

Share your vision of having it all with others so they can support you.

To create our ideal life, we need help from the people around us.

Share your vision with mentors who can provide advice as you navigate life and career choices. Share it with personal sponsors, who can help open doors and recommend you for roles or projects that align with your vision. And definitely share it with your partner.

If you’re in a committed relationship with someone, your vision of having all affects them too. Make sure they know what you’re trying to achieve, why it’s important to you, and what you need from them. Have you asked them what their definition of having it all is? Does it align with yours?

Accept that your definition of having it all may change over time.

In my 20’s and 30’s I had a clear idea of what I wanted to achieve in my career. For the most part, I nailed it. When I got married and started a family, I struggled.

I had an executive role, a comfortable salary and was well-respected in my organisation and in my field. But I was exhausted all the time and I wasn’t fully engaged with my family. I was a passive observer in every part of my life except work, and that was a problem.

I had to re-assess. I soon realised I wasn’t living my true purpose, I wasn’t honouring the things I held dear, and I was no longer enjoying my work.

In fact, I had spent the last 10 years in roles that didn’t serve me well. My life had changed dramatically in that time. What I valued had changed. How I wanted to spend my time had changed. My definition of having it all needed to change too – and it has.

Be kind to yourself along the way

Having it all is no walk in the park, for anyone. It’s a long, hard, frustrating and sometimes lonely slog. And no, you probably won’t have it all every single day – unless you have an extremely large team of personal assistants behind you.

Some days you’ll be firing on all cylinders and will feel amazing. Other days you’ll need to muster every ounce of energy you have just to get out of bed and show up.

You’ll have to make choices. You’ll have to say no to some things so you can say yes to others.

To endure, you need to be kind to yourself.

Let go of the notion of perfection. There is no such thing as a perfect parent, a perfect wife, a perfect boss or a perfect life. We’re all just doing the best we can with what we’ve got.

Practice self-care every day. Go for a walk – even if it’s just for 20 minutes. Indulge in a little bit of chocolate if that’s your thing. Listen to your favourite music. Do something for you every day, because you can’t take care of the things in your life unless you take care of yourself first.

And don’t sweat the small stuff. If you need to swap a home-made meal for take-out, or send the kids to school in slightly dirty uniforms because you haven’t gotten to the laundry yet, so what. No one is going to die.

Creating a truly extraordinary life takes work – save your energy for the bits that matter.